Does the Air Force Really Need the A-10?
There are other ways of doing close air support
The Air Force is apparently planning to retire all 343 of its A-10 Warthog close air support jets starting in 2015—a move the House of Representatives, some key senators and a legion of A-10 boosters oppose.
Proponents of the low- and slow-flying Warthog argue that the flying branch needs the ungainly plane with the massive 30-millimeter cannon in order to attack enemy ground forces in close proximity to friendly troops.
But there are many—both inside and outside the Pentagon—who disagree. There are other ways to do close air support, they say. Some argue that precision weapons and high-tech sensors can largely replace the A-10's firepower. Others insist that a propeller-driven light attack plane could do the same mission for cheaper.
The debate has heated up in the past several weeks as A-10 pilots and their supporters in the Congress have spoken out to save the venerable attack aircraft from the budget axe. As of now, the Air Force has not made a final decision—and officials at the Pentagon are preparing multiple spending plans because of no one knows how much money Congress will actually appropriate.
Nonetheless, Air Force chief of staff Gen. Mark Welsh told an audience at the American Enterprise Institute on Dec. 11 that divesting the A-10 would save $3.7 billion. The service is required to provide $12 billion in savings every year under the sequestration law.
Meanwhile, House supporters of the A-10 have succeeded in inserting language into the body’s version of the 2014 defense authorization act to preserve most of the A-10s through to the end of that year.
But any discussion on the divesting the A-10 is premature, says Mark Gunzinger, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington, D.C. People have become attached to a particular platform and a particular way of doing things rather than embracing new technologies and new innovations, he says.
“There are a group of advocates for various platforms who believe ‘we must continue to operate in the future as we did when I was in a war,’” says Gunzinger, a former B-52 bomber pilot.
As time goes on, technology advances, and as a result tactics evolve. “The history of war is about breaking previous practices and trying new technologies, new operational concepts and so forth to sustain an advantage over your enemy,” Gunzinger says. “The A-10 was developed in an era and for a mission when, frankly, we were at the dawn of seeing an early generation of precision weapons entering the inventory.”
Since that time, increasingly sophisticated precision-guided munitions—PGMs, for short—have revolutionized warfare. “You can achieve effects close to ground forces using precision weapons and other capabilities—unmanned aircraft delivering PGMs, rotary-wing aircraft delivering PGMs and so forth that didn’t exist when the A-10 was first developed,” Gunzinger says.
“I think the current precision weapons regime we’re in today has given us significant new advantages compared to what we had back in the late ‘70s early ‘80s,” he adds.
By the same token, the A-10’s slow speed and low altitude capability may not be as important as they used to be given more and more capable weapons. “You don’t necessarily need the very slow flying, low flying platforms,” Gunzinger says. “And if you do need those kinds of platforms—danger-close delivery of weapons—then we have rotary-wing and we have unmanned vehicles.”
But not everyone agrees with Gunzinger. Guns are the still the most popular weapons for those danger-close situations. A number of pilots have pointed out that those strafing runs have to be conducted at low altitude—and current unmanned aircraft have no gun at all.
But the real issue is not the aircraft flying the close air support mission—it is institutional knowledge and culture. “You can use most platforms for [close are support] quite well,” says Air Force Reserve Col. Michael Pietrucha, a F-15E instructor weapons system officer. “The A-10 community is critical for CAS, but the reason is not because of the aircraft. The reason is because they are all CAS all the time.”
The A-10 community was the group that historically sustained the Air Force’s institutional knowledge of close air support when the mission had fallen by the wayside in previous decades. “That is a critical aspect in that all the other guys are multi-role,” Pietrucha says.
The F-15E, though capable of performing the CAS role very well, is a jet with many mission. Its crews spends a comparatively small part of their training time on close air support. “We did CAS in the ‘90s, and I instructed CAS and I even flew missions that were called CAS in Kosovo and over Bosnia, but we did not have the knowledge base that the A-10 guys had,” Pietrucha says. “That is, strictly speaking, independent of their aircraft.”
The A-10 expertise could be migrated onto another lower-cost airframe—something like a Beechcraft AT-6 for example, Pietrucha says. Such a low-cost manned plane can do the CAS role better than a heavy bomber or an unmanned aircraft because those machines lack a gun—bombs take time to get into the proper parameters to drop, he points out.
Like the A-10, a light attack aircraft could stay close to the friendly ground forces and re-attack very quickly, says Pietrucha, who has heavily involved in developing the Air Force’s currently-unfunded OA-X light attack aircraft program. “I’m airframe agnostic,” he says. “So if I were to talk OA-X, the Air Force should absolutely buy some.”
An OA-X combined with the BAE Systems Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System—laser-guided 2.75-inch rockets—is one way the Air Force could replace the A-10 cheaply and still maintain its CAS expertise. The new weapon would also allow a light attack plane to take over much of the anti-tank role that A-10 pilots have traditionally performed with their 30-millimeter cannons and Maverick missiles.
“I would suggest to you now that with the APKWS, with the warhead designed for use against armor, basically give other fighter-attack aircraft the ability to carry the ordnance, bust a whole lot of tanks,” Pietrucha says. “I think we’ve got potential to say the 30-millimeter cannon is not the only way to skin that cat.”
That means if the Air Force were to buy a fleet of light attack aircraft for, say, $12 million per aircraft, each armed with four APKWS rocket pods plus guns, America would have a very potent CAS and anti-armor force for very low cost. “If I were to replace one A-10 with two light attack, I have a different flavor of capability, but I’m not completely giving up on the mission,” Pietrucha says.
For the USAF, a light attack force could also relieve the burden on some of the multi-role fighter pilots who are currently flying CAS missions while losing their proficiency for other types of missions. Because of the Air Force’s focus on CAS during the wars over Iraq and Afghanistan, the F-15E and F-16 communities have lost critical skills such as how to suppress and destroy enemy air defense. That skill would be needed during any high-tech conflict, Pietrucha says.
The Marine Corps tends to be able to overcome any deficit imposed by flying multi-role jets because of the way the service trains its aviators. Essentially all Marine pilots are CAS specialists and spend most of their time preparing for that one mission. The Marines “really have a far superior system for training their guys,” Pietrucha says.
The Marines demonstrate that close air support is mostly about training people. It’s not about the A-10 … or any other particular aircraft.